2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)

TILL DEATH MAKES A MONK-FISH OUT OF ME! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year's comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they'd entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now. Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there's the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it's so great, so I'll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles -- in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many -- looking at a palm scanner after you've switched bodies with an NPC:
   >x panel
   Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
   over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
   Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
   are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
   who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
   a pig-ignorant machine.
I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there's the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as "R" or "REVIEW", which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what's come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There's a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC's situation and point-of-view. Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don't care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won't even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends. Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful "aha!" moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they're always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I'd had the time available, this game's puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it. So we're talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I'm an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It's not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8

THE PK GIRL by Robert Goodwin

I like comics, and I like animation, but I've never really read much manga or watched much anime. It's not that I've been avoiding these forms, but rather that I haven't happened to explore them yet. I'm a little bit familiar with the concept of hentai, because of the subculture of hentai IF that seems to be out there, which was brought to the attention of the newsgroups a few years ago, primarily by the efforts of a reviewer named Craxton. Because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese comics and animation, I think I lack some context for evaluating The PK Girl, a text adventure with a deep manga influence. First and foremost, I'm not sure what to make of the game's extreme, almost comical insistence on rigid and stereotyped gender roles. Whether this is a convention of manga, something particular to this game, or even just a quirk of the PC I don't know, but while I found it at first just distracting and silly, it quickly graduated to annoying and even offensive. The game puts you in the role of a male PC, and quickly demonstrates that you have some pretty sweeping assumptions about femininity, and a fair amount of anxiety about maintaining the image of your own masculinity. The former becomes apparent in the description of the first female NPC you encounter:
   The girl is clothed in a silky blue dress. Long vibrant hair cascades
   over her shoulders and down her back. Her countenance seems to
   reflect all feminine virtue, inclusive of kindness, submissiveness,
   empathy, and consciousness of time and place.
So "submissiveness" is a feminine trait, in fact a feminine virtue? And kindness and empathy are outside the male domain? Certainly the female characters don't have a lock on self-consciousness, as evidenced by the PC's reaction to entering a women's clothing store:
   Why did you come in here? There is nothing terribly exciting here by
   any male's estimations. To a female, this could well be a lesser
   incarnation of paradise. A wealth of clothing is available on
   circular racks situated in aisles throughout the store, for trying on
   and for purchase. The exit is west. 
Yes, we know that all women love clothes-shopping. And men have no interest whatsoever in women's fashion, which is why all fashion designers are women. Oh, wait. At its worst moments, the game spits out statements that wouldn't seem out of place in a Victorian behavior manual:
   You don't need to take the plate; There are females here to clean up
   after you.
Give me a break! If this is a manga thing, I don't think I'll be reading manga anytime soon.

On the technical (and more positive) side, The PK Girl is the long-awaited game that rises above ADRIFT's initial limitations to take a place among games created by the top-tier development systems. An unbelievable amount of care has gone into crafting this game. First of all, it addresses all the flaws in the ADRIFT parser that I've railed about in previous reviews. The game handles conversation very smoothly indeed, blending the ASK ABOUT approach with a menu-based approach in a somewhat similar fashion to my Earth And Sky games. On the rare occasions when the parser asks a question, it's almost always prepared to handle the answer. SEARCH works, and in fact it works better than in most games, because the game explicitly assumes that it includes looking under and looking behind an object, and says so. Best of all, I never encountered the generic "Nothing special" message for an unrecognized noun, partly because the game changed the default message to be more Inform-like, but mostly because nouns are implemented in exquisite depth. For that matter, not only are almost all nouns described, but a prodigious number are included in the first place. I didn't come close to finishing this game in the two hours allotted, but I must confess that may be my own fault, because I frequently deserted the plot in order to wander around the game and marvel at the level of detail included. For this virtue alone, The PK Girl is one of the most immersive games in this year's comp. In addition to its significant improvement on the standard ADRIFT parser, the game also includes professional-looking illustrations and an enjoyable MIDI soundtrack. This latter can get a little grating after a while, and I sometimes wished that a piece of music would play once and stop rather than continuously looping (or that I at least had the option of making the game behave that way), but it did enhance the scenes' mood quite effectively.

As for the story itself, I found it pretty entertaining. After a fairly tranquil opening, the plot kicks into high gear with a dramatic incident, and events follow sensibly upon each other from there on. NPCs help propel the story forward by sometimes continuing about their business without waiting for the PC, thus forcing the player to keep up or lose the plot entirely. As I said, I didn't get all the way through the story, but the portion I saw delivered excitement and fun, even if the writing sometimes had an oddly elevated tone which worked counter to the brisk pace. There were some problem spots in the writing, phrases that didn't make much sense or that suggested with their awkwardness a few lapses in English skill. Still, for the most part they didn't get in the way of the game's ability to tell a good story. Because its story is fun and quite chaste, The PK Girl might make a nice IF selection for kids, though perhaps it ought to be counterpointed by something rather less sexist. In fact, although I'm clueless about anime, the game reminded me distinctly of another branch of animation, the Disney feature film: technically impressive and proficient while remaining on the political level utterly, utterly reactionary.

Rating: 8.4


And so the legacy of Photopia continues. Here we have a linear, puzzleless narrative, told in small portions out of chronological order, each of which is preceded by a blank screen with one word in the center. Sound familiar? Of course, there are differences: all segments are told from the same point of view, and rather than being a vision of tragedy, Unraveling God is more of a morality tale in the familiar Things Man Was Not Meant To Know tradition. I also don't mean to suggest that UG is some sort of lame rip-off. It isn't. I don't think this game is trying to be Photopia, but is using many of the tools that Photopia used first in order to tell its story. What we may in fact be seeing is the development of a new subgenre of IF; maybe fragmentation is such an effective way to tell a puzzleless IF story that it's bound to become a time-honored technique in story-heavy games. The story and the writing are certainly the feature attraction in this game. You play Gabriel Markson, a scientist who has stumbled across a way to freeze organisms in suspended animation without the use of cryogenics. You are also, as a number of well-judged character details indicate, not a very nice guy. The game's prose does a fine job of portraying the PC as a complex villain, someone who has elaborate mental structures dedicated to justifying his behavior, and this portrayal makes his opportunities for redemption meaningful. There are one or two logical gaps in the story, but for the most part events interlock nicely, which also lends power to the story's climax.

The technical elements, unfortunately, weren't as trouble-free. To begin with, UG started with the inherent disadvantages of the ADRIFT parser, and didn't manage to overcome them with careful compensation like The PK Girl did. Because the game is more or less puzzleless, the parser's deficiencies didn't hurt it as much as they hurt this year's other ADRIFT game, A Party To Murder, but they were still fairly irritating. In addition, this game had its own unique problem, which was that it was plagued by a mysterious lack of articles. For instance:

   A typed label on the manilla folder reads, "Time Magazine draft
   article." Manilla folder is closed.

   You take manilla folder from the desk.

   (manilla folder)
   You open manilla folder.
This kind of thing happened throughout the game, and kept reminding me of that old Saturday Night Live skit from the 80s where Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein sing or read well-known works like "The Raven": "Once upon... midnight dreary... While pondered... weak, weary..." The frequent injection of unintentional comedy doesn't do much for a dramatic story. The grammar errors didn't help either.

Still, I found some value in UG despite these flaws, and there's one more thing I'd like to point out about it: this game is pretty clearly a work of Christian IF, and it is Christian IF done properly. I'm not a Christian, and I've been offended in the past by games like Jarod's Journey whose overt mission is an evangelical one. This game chooses a richer path, which is to tell a story set in a world in which Christian myths turn out to be true, and exploring the consequences and subsequent choices for the characters once this revelation occurs. It's not exactly great religious literature, but it does manage to portray a Christian world without condescension or arrogance. Because it allows a little complexity into its world, UG ends up a more thought-provoking and rewarding piece of work than the sort of Christian IF that just wants to shout scripture at the player.

Rating: 6.9

BOFH by Howard Sherman

So here's an interesting one: this game assigns background reading. In fact, the author caused a bit of a dustup on the newsgroups by posting a "background reading recommended" (or, as the post put it, "reccomended") message that some people felt was tantamount to releasing part of the game prior to the judging period. Apparently, BOFH is based on existing material, a series of stories created by Internet humorist Simon Travaglia. As per the comp rules, the author obtained permission from the copyright holder, thus slipping through the barrier that keeps this sort of thing from happening most of the time. Like the Usenet post, the game's readme file suggests brushing up on the who, what, why, and how of the BOFH by visiting Travaglia's web page and reading some of those stories before playing the game. My decision on how to handle this was first to ignore the Usenet post -- I'm not going to do "background reading" for one of 37 comp games I'm judging before the game is even released. Next, once I got to the game in my judging order, I decided to go ahead and read some of the material on the web page, but to count the time spent doing that as part of the two hours I'm spending on the game, as if the web archive were just one gigantic, very detailed set of feelies. Of course, one could easily spend all of two hours perusing the material, so I just took 15 minutes or so and read a few things to get the general feel. These researches yielded the fact that BOFH stands for Bastard Operator From Hell, and that the stories are the fictional exploits of a nameless network administrator with a decidedly cruel streak. From what I could glean in a short period, the BOFH's raison d'etre is to punish stupidity (or even ignorance) with extreme prejudice, delighting in the damage and anguish he causes, and gleefully reveling in the loot that accrues from his malicious prowess. The IF version of BOFH, then, casts me as an apprentice Bastard, eager to wreak havoc on the deserving.

Thus forearmed, I fired up the game. The very first thing I noticed was that the debugging verbs are left on. Not a good sign. Shortly after that, I discovered that the game suffers from grammar problems, and some rather poor implementation, like the laptop that can be neither opened nor switched on. Also, the writing fails to explain critical points, such as the fact that after somebody magically appears, he also apparently magically disappears without notice. It seems that newlines also frequently disappear (or rather, never appear to begin with), which looks ugly. Shortly after all that, I found the room where an NPC repeats the same exact speech over and over again, because that speech is apparently implemented as part of his "initial" property, and since he never acquires the "moved" attribute he never switches from using this attribute to a more reasonable description. It was at about that point that I decided, "Hey, I'm a BOFH, right? It's my job to punish stupidity with cruelty, right? Let's go, then." I typed TREE to get a look at the game's object tree, then PURLOINed any items that looked interesting. I PURLOINed the NPC, which shut him up quite handily. A SHOWOBJ confirmed that indeed, his speech was implemented in his "initial" property. Tsk tsk.

After a while, the charm faded from this activity, so I just restarted the game and went through according to the walkthrough, still employing the occasional judicious PURLOIN or GONEAR when something looked like too much trouble to bother with. It doesn't get any better. Rather than mutating entirely into the Bastard Reviewer From Hell, I'll just say that it would seem Mr. Travaglia should have requested editorial control rather than just giving permission carte blanche, since I'd be rather surprised if this is the game he wants representing his work as IF. My advice is to spend your time reading the stories on his archive if cruel humor is your cup of tea. They're sure to be more entertaining and less frustrating than this game, which turns out to be less of a Bastard and more of a luser.

Rating: 3.4 (so close, but ah well, there you are)

FOUR MILE ISLAND by Chris Charla as Anonymous

Note: I can't really think of a way to review this game without including one major spoiler. So one major spoiler is included. Just FYI.

In Comp2000, Chris Charla entered a game called Infil-Traitor, which purported to be a rickety BASIC game from 1982, but was in fact a rickety BASIC game he had programmed himself the month before the comp started. I didn't play that game because the compiled version had a fatal bug, so it fell to the bottom of my list and I never got around to actually recompiling it in order to try the playable version. Given that I only found out after the comp was over that the entry was submitted under false pretenses, I kinda thought I'd dodged a bullet there. I was wrong, because he did it again. Four Mile Island comes with a long and detailed readme which tells the story of how the author used to work in a warehouse that some computer magazines had used as office space and found an old, never-published type-in computer game, typed it in and entered it in the comp with the permission of the author. Even if all this was true, it'd hardly make for a promising comp entry, but of course it isn't true, it's just a made-up cover to allow the author to create a near-perfect facsimile of an early Eighties magazine type-in adventure game.

Of course, the question that leaps to mind here, and I'm sure I'm not the only one asking this is: why? Those who played Infil-Traitor are no doubt asking, "For God's sake, man, why twice?" I mean, sure, it plays just like a game whose source code might appear in a 1984 computing magazine. Yeah, it's written in BASIC. Yeah, it's got a two-word parser. Yeah, the plot is something about the Cold War and nuclear bombs. Yeah, it's pretty buggy. Yeah, it's got an annoying maze. I grant all these things. But are they virtues? They were the best we could do at the time, but are they worth recreating? Not to me, they aren't. I actually like being able to save my game. I think UNDO is a good thing. I think it's kind of cool how a game can end now and I can actually read the ending text because it's not running in a DOS window that shuts down after the program exits. An exact replica of a primitive game is no more fun to play than an actual primitive game. I think that's one of those Zen aphorisms, or something.

Of course, that's just me. We all have our preferences. And I'm quite sure that to some, my fascination with Infocom-style text adventures and their modern descendents would be just as quirky as someone else's fascination with type-in games. So let's hear it for the IF competition, which allows even the strangest retro-text-gaming passions some outlet. If somebody's idea of a good time is to write up a BASIC two-word parser game that feels just like one I might have typed into my Atari 800 when I was 14 years old, more power to 'em. It just doesn't happen to be my idea of a good game. Tastes vary.

Rating: 4.1

OUT OF THE STUDY by Anssi Raisanen

A few years ago, I made up some vocabulary to describe a common aspect of IF. I'm not really sure if anybody else uses it, but I've found it immensely handy. The vocabulary is this: I call a noun that appears in a room description a "first-level noun." These nouns either will or won't have descriptions implemented, and the more of them that are described, the better, in my opinion. Nouns that appear in the descriptions of first-level nouns I call second-level nouns. Nouns from second-level descriptions are third-level, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more complete and immersive the interactive environment, as we've seen in previous games like Hunter, In Darkness and Worlds Apart. Out Of The Study puts this technique to some of the best use I've ever seen, going very deep indeed with its levels of description:
   > x family photo
   In the photo you see the professor together with his family.

   > x family
   The professor is standing in the photo with his wife and five

   > x children
   The photo is really rather old as the children in it are still very
   young. You know that none of them lives at home anymore. On the left
   there are twin boys, looking to be of the age at which they have just
   started going to school. In the middle, the youngest child, just a
   baby, is sitting in her mother's lap. It seems to be hardly one year
   old: you cannot tell if it's a boy or a girl, even from the clothes.

   > x baby
   The baby, whose sex you are not able to tell, is dressed in a pink

   > x overall
   It is just an ordinary babies' outfit.
Given that OOTS is a one-room game, this depth of implementation goes a very long way towards making the environment feel real and interactive. Intriguingly, the point of this depth isn't just to increase immersion; it's actually an element of the game's puzzles, and clues are often buried several levels deep. Enlightenment, from Comp98, explored this technique a little, but OOTS takes it much further.

This game's puzzles are definitely its best feature. Like many one-room games, it has only a modicum of plot -- you're a thief who has been trapped inside the place you're robbing, and you must investigate the environment to figure out how to escape. To do so, you have to figure out the mindset of the room's occupant, and all the regular puzzles are subsections of that overriding goal. The design is generally sound, and I appreciated the fact that the environment was so richly implemented, but it would have been a lot more fun were it not so buggy. There's a bit of an insect theme in this game, but actual game bugs are not welcome no matter how many metalevels of irony they provide. Some of the problems may have been due to the ALAN parser; for instance, I found I couldn't refer to objects by their adjectives, as in the following example where both a "torn photograph" and a "family photograph" are in scope:

   > x photograph
   [It is not clear which photograph you mean.]

   > x torn
   [You must supply a noun.]
Being able to refer to an object by any of its name words is a behavior I've come to love in IF, and I missed it a great deal during this game. Other things were clearly the game's fault. For instance, "examine" and "read" were implemented as different verbs, but their implementation was not well-tested, resulting in exchanges like this:
   > read books
   There is nothing written on the books.
Hope you didn't pay too much for those books, professor -- they aren't worth the paper they aren't written on.

Between the game's bugs, its quirks, and its lack of a walkthrough, I came thisclose to just abandoning it altogether. Happily, some folks over at ifMUD helped me get unstuck so I could reach the ending. Unhappily, that ending is a bit of a disappointment. OOTS succumbs to the temptation to tack on a rather cutesy "twist" ending, but my reaction to it was neither "awwwww" nor "whoa!", but rather "huh?" In my view, all that ending does is to make hash of everything that came before, as well as to make the player's labors seem rather fruitless. I don't even think it can be justified as bringing some sort of justice to the thief, because it's unclear how much reality has actually shifted, or how much we are to assume about the game as a whole. There are some good puzzles and a very well-crafted setting here, and with a round or two more of testing and a better ending, OOTS could be a pretty good piece of IF.

Rating: 7.0

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Paul O's 2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002